What’s behind this summer’s unnaturally huge Greek forest fires – UNHERD

31/08/2023 by

My grandmother had the theory that, as we get older, our mind subconsciously cleanses our memories of a myriad misfortunes, leaving a sanitised version of the past for us to feel nostalgic about. The optimism of remembrance, she called it. Little did she know that her reasonable hypothesis would, one day, become the climate change deniers’ mantra.

Until a few summers ago, I dismissed my sense that our bushfires were getting worse as merely Grandma’s optimism of remembrance in action – that I was forgetting how awful bushfires were back in the day. Then, in 2018 I witnessed, from a few kilometres afar, a horrendous fireball resembling a US-style twister only made of flames. In a few short minutes it consumed Mati, a seaside suburb north of Athens, incinerating more than one hundred people, one of them an old friend and her husband. My grandma’s theory no longer seemed to hold water.

Two summers ago, this time from our home’s veranda, my partner and I watched helplessly as a firewall painstakingly destroyed a whole mountain on the other side of the Saronic Bay in whose forests I had spent a magical family holiday in the early 1970s. That fire burned for three days and for two horrendous nights during which the stars seemed pinned on a scarlet backdrop and the air was thick with ashes tasting of wholesale death. It took us weeks to smile again.

And, now, this dreadful summer. I need not describe the situation in Rhodes, Corfu, Attika etc. Words fail me, especially since ten minutes ago I heard it on the wireless that a twin-engined firefighting Canadair airplane crashed near Karystos while diving into a ravine to throw seawater onto yet another conflagration – the fate of the two pilots in morbid abeyance (Nb. Their death was later confirmed). Sorry, grandma, at least on this, your theory is now irrelevant. Greece is desertifying, a fate worse than living in a desert because of all the perishing (animal, vegetable and even mineral) that comes with the desertification process.

Experts tell me that Greece is no outlier. That worse developments are afoot in the New World; e.g., the 2019 hideous fires in South East Australia or the unbelievable 50oC temperatures in British Columbia two years later. I am sure they are right and that, unlike the Cold War and the Euro Crisis that did begin in Greece, climate disaster did not begin in my homeland. Be that as it may, for many people in the West, but also in the Global South, some very old Greek ideas about our collective fortunes continue to resonate and are, thus, bound to be resurface as Greece burns.

Hesiod told us the tale of Prometheus and his daring act to steal fire from Zeus to deliver it to us, humans, so that we could create the technologies (like the conversion of pig iron to steel) that would allow us to flourish as a species. Accepting Zeus’ horrendous punishment, Prometheus clearly hoped that we, humans, would put fire to good use – that we would apply it to lighten up our lives without burning down the Earth. It was a faith that Hesiod did not share. In his poem Works and Days, Hesiod did not mince his words regarding the white heat of technology and the Iron Age (which he called the Fifth Age):

I wish I did not have to live among the people of the Fifth Age, but either had died earlier or been born later. For now truly is a generation of iron who never rest from labour and sorrow by day or from perishing by night… But, notwithstanding the good mingled with their evils,… [this generation] will know no favour for those who keep their oath or for the just or for the good…, strength shall be right,… the wicked will hurt the worthy,… bitter sorrows will be left for us mortals, and there will be no help against evil. [174-200]

Fire begat steel, steel begat power and power was something that humans could not handle wisely, Hesiod explained before prophesying that Zeus would have no choice but to, one day, destroy a humanity incapable of restraining its own, technologically induced, power. Today, surrounded by technologies that would have baffled Zeus no end, it is our children that are issuing warnings not too dissimilar to Hesiod’s.

Meanwhile, the adults are playing childish games; like appointing the head of an Emirati oil company as head of… Cop28 (the latest rendition of the UN-sponsored global summit against climate change). And it is, of course, not just the UN. The EU political tide is shifting against the green transition, with the new farmer’s party in the Netherlands tilting the political field against it, thus causing the European People’s Party, led by Manfred Weber in the European Parliament, to take the hint and to question the EU’s net zero policies, as PM Rishi Sunak recently did in the UK.

Returning to Greece, I am often asked about the prospects of green politics here. In the interest of full disclosure, I lead MeRA25, the only parliamentary party to have campaigned against all new fossil fuel investments, including for a ban on oil-and-gas drilling in the Mediterranean. Partly as a result, in the general election of last June, we lost all nine of our parliamentary seats (including mine). Sure enough, there were other reasons and own faults to explain our defeat, but the fact that every single television and radio channel is either owned or sponsored by oligarchs heavily invested in fossil fuels does seem pertinent. How do they get away with it? Why do the Greeks turn a blind eye while the heat sizzles their bodies and crushes their souls?

In 1969, dad and mum bought a plot of land deep inside a splendid pine forest in an area sixty kilometres northeast of Athens that was deemed (and remains) unfashionable. The law allowed us to place, in between the pine trees, a log cabin no larger than ninety square metres. Which we did. No electricity, no running water, no telephone, it was a dreamy place that I shall never forget.

Soon after, others followed. Industrial workers, shopkeepers, drivers, school teachers – a cross-section of the working class and the Athenian petit-bourgeois discovered the joys of ‘our’ forest, as they had every right to. The more wooden houses appeared the greater the popular demand for paved roads, electricity, water and all the mod cons of modern life. Gradually, residents bent the rules. Cement foundations, stone patios and unlicensed extensions appeared overnight.

The initial resistance of the municipality gave way to electoral calculations and lobbying. Trees were cut to accommodate asphalt roads, electricity relay towers were built and telephone lines were installed. They, in turn, created greater demand for land and for houses that were breaking, in broad daylight, all the local laws.

The ‘development’ that humans brought to that forest is a good parable of Greece’s path from the 1970s to our entry into the European Union, to the phoney debt-fuelled growth which led (after Wall Street and the franco-german banks collapsed) to Greece’s bankruptcy and, yes, to the thirteen years of austerity that followed (which hit badly, amongst other services, our fire brigades). Two years ago, following that summer’s sickening fires, I wrote about all this, again to seek answers and thus to steady my own nerves. Today, I seek solace in thinking again about our cabin house and the forest that welcomed it so generously.

In 1999 the place was still recognisable as a pine forest, only now it was infested with disrespectful humans. One hot summer day, that year, a ravenous bushfire descended upon our forest from the north. Hundreds of houses were burned to a crisp. The forest was gone. Had humanity not invaded it, it would have regenerated in twenty or thirty years. Alas, the invaders grabbed the opportunity to expand their abodes where the trees used to be, and to plant non-native species of trees, grow vegetables etc. Today, you would not know that a pine forest flourished there during my teen years.

These thoughts I share with you dear reader as I try to understand why a people whose country burns do not embrace green politics at the polling stations. One reason, which we encounter all over the world, is that the weak know that the powerful have the political capacity to make them pay for the green transition. After having paid for the bankers’ crimes, after having suffered a decade of harsh austerity, they will now have to pay for the huge cost of righting the planet whose degradation netted the rich treasures beyond the reach of any Treasury.

However, in the case of my people, there is that other reason too: A well-repressed sense of common guilt. Our working class and our petti-bourgeoisie know that, in the early 1970s, they too played their part in a steady assault on Nature. While each did little individual damage, compared to the vast devastation wrought by the oligarchs, their guilt makes it easy for the ruling class to say to them: “We were in this together.” And in doing so, to silence dissent.

For the UNHERD site where the article was originally published, click here.

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